A lot happens in the second last chance saloon
The 17th hole has played its usual role in this golfing year, says Dermot Gilleece
In presenting a challenge worthy of competition at the highest level on both sides of the Atlantic, they discharged their function admirably this year in the destination of arguably two major championships.
Then another member of this particular golfing family went on to create riveting late-season tension in the climactic moments of the Ryder Cup.
I refer to 17th holes, some of which have acquired the mantle of greatness only since observers began to look seriously at golf-course design. In the case of architect Pete Dye, they are almost invariably par threes, but the most famous 17th of all happens to be a par-four measuring 495 yards -- the Road Hole at St Andrews.
Almost 50 years ago, The Guardian's celebrated golf scribe, Pat Ward-Thomas, wrote an essay titled 'Great Seventeenth Holes', inspired by their capacity to play upon fear and courage. Naturally, the Road Hole was among them, but he also highlighted the formidable 17th at Portmarnock where Christy O'Connor Snr carded threes in the third and fourth rounds, on his victory march to the Dunlop Masters title in 1959.
When capturing the US Open last June, Graeme McDowell had to confront the fiendish mental challenge of the short 17th at Pebble Beach. A month later, the same player used emotive words such as "brutal", "carnage" and "controversial" when assessing the change that an additional 40 yards had made to the 17th at St Andrews.
In the PGA in August, Martin Kaymer followed four pars on the short 17th at Whistling Straits, with a priceless birdie there in a play-off with Bubba Watson to set himself up for the title.
Finally, on Monday, October 4, a day behind schedule, McDowell's unflinching steel forced a concession from Hunter Mahan on Celtic Manor's short 17th to regain the Ryder Cup for Europe.
Mention of the Ryder Cup brings to mind one of the most remarkable predictions I have encountered in golf. It came from David Feherty early in 1999 when, in reflecting on a shock US defeat in the Presidents Cup, he looked towards their Ryder Cup prospects at Brookline the following September.
An established member of the CBS golf commentary team by then, Feherty found himself irresistibly drawn to the Country Club's 17th hole. Though a relatively innocent looking par four of 381 yards, he sensed it would have a critical bearing on the eventual outcome. In the event, US skipper Ben Crenshaw drew inspiration from it as the scene where Harry Vardon effectively handed the 1913 US Open to Francis Ouimet by driving into the bunker on the apex of the right-to-left dogleg.
"Obviously it's not at all like the short 17th at Kiawah Island, where I beat Payne Stewart in 1991," said Feherty. "From a matchplay standpoint, however, the one at Brookline remains an extremely tricky second-last hole."
And what happened? Justin Leonard sank a 50-foot putt there on the way to an improbable halved match with Jose Maria Olazabal which sparked off an outrageous player-invasion of the 17th green and returned the trophy to the US.
More recently, we need no reminding of the importance of Royal Birkdale's 572-yard 17th in the victory surge of Pádraig Harrington in the 2008 Open Championship. After a perfectly-struck five-wood off the tee, Harrington proceeded to use the same club for a second-shot of 272 yards which brought the ball to rest three feet from the pin for a glorious eagle.
Only three weeks later, with the PGA Championship on the line, a holed 10-footer for a birdie on the short 17th at Oakland Hills effectively killed the challenge of Sergio Garcia, setting Harrington up for back-to-back Majors.
Augusta National's 440-yard 17th would be considered quite benign in this sort of company. Which may explain how Lee Westwood could play it in figures one stroke better than Phil Michelson last April, and still be beaten by the mercurial American.
Within an hour of winning the US Open two months later, however, McDowell was saying: "I had an awful decision on 17 (208 yards). Having considered a high three iron, I ended up taking a four iron which got nailed by the wind and barely made the front bunker." So it was that he bogeyed it, just as he had done on the opening day and again in the third round.
Still, one of his main challengers, Ernie Els, did considerably worse. Appearing to despair on how to play the hole, Els dropped a total of five strokes there over the four days by carding 5, 4, 4, 4. By comparison, runner-up Gregory Havret had figures of 4, 3, 3, 4. All of which contrasted starkly with the famous two by Jack Nicklaus in the 1972 US Open when his one iron ripped into a strong Pacific wind and hit the flag for a sensational two. Incidentally, the Bear had parred the hole over the previous three days.
But if any player had the measure of this treacherous par three, it was Tom Watson. Having played it in 2, 2, 3 over the first three rounds of the 1982 US Open, he proceeded to hole out a greenside chip for another birdie on the final day, effectively stealing the title from Nicklaus who seemed to have set a winning target.
Meanwhile, the carnage which McDowell predicted on the 17th at St Andrews last July never really materialised in the 150th anniversary Open. Still, Rory McIlroy suffered there with a double-bogey six in a third-round 69 and Paul Casey carded a wretched seven in another 69, this time on the second day.
Interestingly, as had happened at Augusta National three months previously, Westwood played it better than the winner. On this occasion, the English runner-up had three pars followed by a bogey on the Sunday, compared with Louis Oosthuizen's bogeys on the Thursday and Sunday, with pars in between.
At 223 yards and bordered on the left by Lake Michigan, the 17th at Whistling Straits is classic Dye. And last August, there was considerable significance in how the leading challengers handled it.
Bubba Watson, for instance, bogeyed it on the third and final days. A par on the Sunday and there would have been no play-off with Kaymer. For his part, the German carded four pars in normal play, which meant that none of the leaders matched McIlroy who had a birdie followed by three pars. Kaymer's birdie in the three-hole play-off, however, was ultimately decisive.
On Celtic Manor's 211-yard 17th, a green sloping severely from left to right made club selection critical, especially in brisk crosswinds. As a Ryder Cup partnership, it could be said that McDowell and McIlroy handled it creditably, despite losing Saturday's foursome to Stewart Cink and Matt Kuchar.
Finally, when everything hinged on individual combat in the last match on the last day, McDowell knew exactly what to do. With a temperament capable of evaluating risk and safety, he understood how a 17th demands a careful balance between aggression and prudence, especially when in possession of a two-hole lead.
Great players find a way of handling great challenges. And for a select group of winners this year, number 17 became a perfect fit.